For Women's March on Washington protesters, the fight is far from over
The march was filled not only with a sense of poetic purpose, but also frightening moments that left many people on the verge of shaky panic
Our two buses have been nicknamed "Peace" and "Love," and we're riding to the Women's March on Washington (WMW) from New York, on the organizational wings of a woman named Mary Dove. Thin, long fingers of barren trees poke out of a dense fog on the side of the highway, which is filled with massive, shiny buses jockeying for position as they stream into the U.S. capital. The women are coming with their men and their children and their friends and their peaceful fierceness to give a message to President Donald Trump.
The day would live up to its early-morning Gothic promise. It would be moving, epic and filled not only with a sense of poetic purpose – a tide of pink-hatted humanity flooding the iconic public spaces of Washington – but also frightening moments that left many people on the verge of shaky panic.
What started out as a day to have a collective impact on the new administration, a day to come together and support each other, at certain points became a challenge of how to survive the wall-to-wall mass of teeming crowds.
Still, the overwhelming success of the WMW, and the sister marches around the world, totalling an estimated two million people, has led to discussion – and concern – about how to ensure the momentum doesn't wane. Mobilizations for activist causes don't have a great success rate historically. And while there's a sense the WMW sent a loud message, people are now focusing on what needs to come next. Even on our bus ride, the enthusiasm in the morning as we set off to Washington was countered by a more sombre mood on the return as many realized that while they have shown up for the first big encounter, the fight is far from over.
On Sunday afternoon, the organizers of WMW issued plans on their website for turning the event into a grassroots organization with a new campaign, "10 Actions for the first 100 days," vowing that every 10 days they will take action on an issue. They want to ensure that the "march forward does not end."
Organizers of the WMW had been saying they expected 200,000 marchers, having asked them to register beforehand on their website. But city officials and media estimated about 600,000 took part, and the Washington march appeared to attract far more people than the number who attended Mr. Trump's inauguration the day before.
"I won't say that [Mr. Trump] is not my President. That's not right. He is our President now and he works for us," Ms. Dove, a 50-something woman with smooth strawberry blond hair, a kindly face and bright red lips, says to me on the bus. "And if he doesn't do a good job, we'll say to him, 'You're fired!'" she says in reference to the infamous line Mr. Trump spouted on his reality-TV show, The Apprentice.
Starting at 4:30 in the morning, she has greeted each of us as we board "Peace" on a side street at the periphery of Union Square in New York.
I had decided to travel with Americans, as opposed to going on a bus from Canada, because I wanted to observe the event through the eyes of women who will be most affected by this administration.
Ms. Dove has never organized buses before. She has never marched in a protest before. But she has taken on the responsibility of this trip with the zeal of a loving, helicopter mother. Packs of artisanal, vegan food are handed out, along with bottles of water and emergency information.
She's a psychotherapist and it's clear that for her and many others, this is a healing journey.
Many on board are disappointed Hillary Clinton supporters.
"I had to take a Xanax on election night," says Carla Scheele, a 62-year-old educator on the bus.
"I couldn't breathe. I felt sick to my stomach," adds Rachel Edelman, a 38-year-old who works for Her Justice, an organization in New York that provides legal services for low-income women.
Sitting in the row in front, she turns to join in the conversation. "I have really deep fear for this country," she says, blushing with anguish and tearing up with emotion.
"I don't think I realized that so much of the President's role is not mandatory. There's nothing that legally binds him to release his taxes for instance."
"Trump is not normal. But the push-back to him is not going to be normal, either," puts in Annie Stebinger, a 64-year-old musician. A serene presence in casual clothes with a scarf wrapped around her head, she radiates calm determination.
The women talk about Mr. Trump's astonishingly dark inaugural speech and the removal of information about LGBT rights from the White House website on the first day of his presidency.
"This is not the end times," Ms. Stebinger says soothingly.
"This is when we assert our humanity. A lot of people have been politicized by his election," she says, adding that she has been a feminist and activist for many years. "There is light and there is dark in this world, and sometimes you have to go to the darkest place to find the light again."
As we arrive in Washington, Ms. Dove gives us a pep talk.
"We are awesome! We will survive!" she shouts to the group from the front of the bus. The parking lot at the RFK Stadium, three kilometres east of the Capitol building, is already packed with buses. More than 1,700 buses are scheduled to arrive from all parts of the country.
And it's immediately clear that the number of marchers is far bigger than expected.
WMW "ambassadors" in bright orange vests stand near the stadium advising marchers the Metro subway system is overwhelmed and it will take people an hour to reach the stop where the rally is to begin at Independence Avenue and Third Street, a trip that usually takes 10 to 15 minutes. Many decide to walk instead.
Along the way, residents wave from their doorsteps. Several houses have lawn signs with quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend," reads one. "We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools," reads another.
With its use of Ms. Clinton's statement that "women's rights are human rights" and its promotion of Kingian principles of non-violence, the WMW sees itself as the respectful offspring of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 at which the civil-rights activist gave his "I have a dream" speech. That march set a precedent for hundreds of thousands of people of diverse backgrounds to convene in Washington to advance human rights.
There are a few more WMW volunteers along the road as well as members of the National Guard.
At this point, there's a sense of a feelgood party. Many women, men and children wear the so-called pussyhats, pink knitted caps with two points on top, meant to resemble cat's ears. It's a grassroots movement to reclaim the use of the word often used to connote female genitals.
Placards are gleefully waved about.
"Snowflakes cause blizzards. Layer up, Buttercup," says one as push back to the political right's term for people they consider too sensitive and politically correct.
"Mujeres unidas jamas seran vencidas [Women united will never be defeated]," says one enormous sign held by three Latinas who flew in from Texas.
"Yes, there are liberals in Texas!" one calls out cheerily.
"Men of quality don't fear equality," reads a sign held by a young man who has come with his girlfriend.
Instructions from WMW were like indoctrination into a spartan summer camp: backpacks, purses or totes larger than eightinches by six by four will be confiscated as will any flags or signage on a stick.
Each marcher is allowed one larger bag – 12 inches by 12 by six – for food and other supplies, but it must be see-through plastic. Most have complied even though there is no one checking to see if they have. Some of the women call out "good morning" to the police and army reservists, thanking them for their help.
But once we reach the west side of the Capitol building, where crowds of people converge from different avenues, any semblance of order quickly disappears.
There is little evidence of security.
Volunteers disappear in the surging crowd with flows of people moving in different directions like strong currents in a roiling sea.
The scene is circus-like in the few pockets of space where people can at least move.
A large 40-year-old man named Donald Dusinberre, dressed in a black T-shirt, pink necklace and long fuchsia-coloured skirt, curtsies dramatically to some observers. "I have a life and I have daughters," he says to explain why he has come with his wife and children from his home in Alexandria, Va.
Some women wear the fashion of early 20th-century suffragettes. Others hold large soft pink sculptures of female reproductive organs.
Opportunistic entrepreneurs hawk merchandise, calling out the bargain prices of T-shirts, of incense, in competition to the political chants – "This is what democracy looks like!"; "No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!" and "Stop the deportations! No borders! No nations!" – that fill the air.
Born-again Christians bellow into megaphones about the second coming of Christ, carrying giant placards with Biblical warnings about whores, messages about feminists as destroyers of the family and how abortion is murder.
Few Trump supporters are in sight, although some point to a group of them across a street, as if identifying dangerous infidels.
In one corner, menstrual pads have been taped to a concrete wall like small posters with slogans written on them – "feminism without intersectionality is white supremacy," "We all came from this!" and "My body, my choice."
A young female activist hands out menstrual pads, printed in red ink with an illustration of an angry lioness at the centre. She pushes a small poster in the hands of passersby: "I solemnly swear that this pussy will grab back," it reads, referencing the 2005 tape of Mr. Trump talking about grabbing women's crotches.
There will be blood, this menstrual-themed activism seems to warn in a tone that is playful, unashamed and ominous all at the same time.
Gloria Steinem, author and iconic feminist; Angela Davis, political activist and scholar; Van Jones, president of Dream Corps and CNN commentator; and Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X's daughter who is an activist and author, are among the high-profile speakers at the east end of the National Mall, where the inauguration took place.
But the crowd is directionless and confused as the space limits the number who can enter the area near the stage where a Jumbotron broadcasts the event, and people are forced to turn around.
There are no announcements about what's happening. The planned two-kilometre march is supposed to start at 1 p.m. At several points, many people appear to be on the edge of panic.
It is a massive wall-to-wall block of bodies, and when some realize that there's no movement – no start of an organized march – ahead, they change course, looking desperately for open space to relieve their claustrophobia.
"We could get trampled. This is how people die," I overhear several people say. At one point, a loud bang sounds, and a palpable frisson passes through the crowd.
Later, people report that the official march was cancelled as the crowd was too large and chaotic for the organizers to lead.
"It so easily could have ended in tragedy," more than one person says when free of the scene and on their way back to their buses.
There is a mood of exhaustion, elation and gratitude as realization dawns at how momentous the WMW was.
"I can't believe we still have to protest this," a weary-looking, sixtysomething woman says on a packed Metro train returning at the end of the day to the RFK stadium. "But this is how it starts," she says confidently, her eyes laser-like beneath her droopy pink pussyhat.
That question of how to keep up the activist momentum is on the minds of many in the aftermath of this massive mobilization.
Sunday was the 44th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court abortion-rights ruling.
The WMW, who have an app as well as Instagram account, Facebook page and a website, put out a reminder of the anniversary, saying "Yesterday at the #WomensMarch we showed our collective power. Today, we celebrate RoevWade – and tomorrow, we fight back. #7in10forRoe" – the last hashtag mention a reference to recent data from a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showing seven in 10 Americans believe Roe v. Wade should stand.
But the history of marches does not bode well.
In 1913, suffragettes marched in Washington but nationally in the United States, the legal right to vote did not come until 1920. And despite several marches since the 1970s about the Equal Rights Amendment for women, granting them protection under the U.S. Constitution, it has yet to be passed.
"Realistically, I have mixed feelings about whether marches in Washington, D.C., matter," Teresa Younger, CEO of Ms. Foundation for Women, told me last week in an interview.
"We can't just march in Washington, D.C., and we can't just march in our states. We have to hold elected officials accountable in everything we do, and that means people have to go home and organize … to write letters and to show up at [local politicians'] doorsteps. This march is a good place to feel rejuvenated and energized so that we can go back home to our own spaces and continue to fight."
Others are equally skeptical.
"These large marches are probably very effective in creating a sense of community among those who are participating … but less effective in terms of creating policy change or even [in sustaining] a relationship with an extended movement to build progressive organizations," says Annie Valk, professor of history at Williams College in Massachusetts and author of the 2008 book Radical Sisters: Second-Wave Feminism and Black Liberation in Washington.
"Political change can take a long time. Can people come out of this march with a commitment and an idea about how to build a sustained movement for change? That, I think, remains to be seen."
Back in the bus, after a long and transformative day, people are exhausted.
"Occupy Wall Street may have fizzled as a movement," Ms. Stebinger, the musician, concedes when I had asked her, earlier in the day, about the effectiveness of other marches.
"But it spread out to make many people activists. You just never know what reverberations these [mobilizations] may have."
Ms. Dove tells me that in her volunteer role with Lean In NYC, part of Sheryl Sandberg's organization to promote female leadership, she helps to organize workshops on how to write op-ed articles and press for political change.
Several women mention what Ms. Younger of Ms. Foundation had told me. "I don't know if we'll ever change [Mr. Trump] or that we'll change [Vice-President Mike] Pence. But there is a Congress. There is a House of Representatives with elections every two years. … That's not very long."
Silence falls over the group as the bus heads out onto the busy highway.
People try to sleep or just recover from the chaotic day by staring out the windows into the darkness. Ms. Dove and her helpers hand out paper bags with salads and healthy cookies. "Drink water to rehydrate" she advises.
When we disembark in New York around 11 p.m., she hugs everyone before he or she disappears into the cloak of darkness and the anonymity of the city.